Nature's resources

Clouds, climate change, crop insurance, and the fall of civilizations

I write today, as I usually do, from my couch. The apartment is dark and warm. There was a rain shower earlier, but the cool, humid air outside has not yet dispersed the thick air inside. It doesn’t help that earlier I blanched some root vegetables, sending plumes of steam into the apartment. But the rain has at least watered my tomato and pepper plants.

The indoor plants are suffering, as they always seem to in August. The dragon tree is dropping leaves every day, and the corn plant that has been dying since we rescued it from the street two years ago is on its last leg.

The house is especially quiet because my mom and brother left this morning after a short visit. While I had to work part of the time they were here, I sent them on a couple outdoorsy adventures: to the beach at Coney Island, and to bike around Governors Island. Together, we walked the High Line on Friday afternoon. The plant life in the park is really lovely, but the crowds inching along rivaled the crowds pushing through Times Square.

Now that they’ve left, I’m feeling droopy like the plants, a summertime slump of sorts — perhaps also a post-birthday slump. I’ve had several articles published in the past few weeks. Those deadlines kept me from keeping up with the usual once-a-week Pinch of Dirt schedule, and from working out and other habits that keep me sane and happy. I’m looking forward to improving on those front in the coming weeks, while also squeezing in a couple weekend trips before August is over and the rigor of September sets in.


Read me

For The New Food Economy, I wrote about a task force trying to hack the crop insurance program to introduce products that reward conservation practices. If Monsanto can do it for GMO seeds, why not a product for regenerative ag? I loved learning about practical ways we can tweak the food system and have large scale environmental impacts (the good kind). I also loved learning about the origins of the crop insurance program, which started with the Dust Bowl. FDR’s words at the time give me chills, they’re still so relevant:

“[The] recurring dust storms and rivers yellow with silt are a warning that Nature’s resources will not indefinitely withstand exploitation or negligence. The only permanent protection which can be given consumers must come from conservation practiced by farmers.”

Read the story here.

Left: Arthur Rothstein; right: Dorothea Lange

Also for The New Food Economy, I wrote about the growing scientific consensus that many UTIs can be traced back to contaminated food sources, and yet the government fails to monitor or regulate the type of bacteria causing serious, often drug-resistant infections the way it monitors other food-borne pathogens. Read all about it here.

Then, for new vegan publication Tenderly, I went on a quest to make vegan soup dumplings. I’ve wanted to try making veg soup dumplings for AGES and when I saw this site had launched I pitched it. It was my first recipe-testing/recipe-writing assignment, and a lot of fun! Read (and get the recipe) here.


More to read

Please excuse my fast and dirty curation; I have so many links in my inbox to share that I don’t have time to do each justice with a thoughtful response.

Photographs of the alpine ski resorts that climate change has left high and dry (but look ripe for repurposing into hiking lodges?) [Emily Atkin and Tomaso Clavarino for New Republic]

A really cool data visualization of overnight visitor numbers at national parks, and the preferred types of lodging. [Jordan Vincent, h/t Ethan Davison]

Will types of clouds disappear under climate change? [Mari Saito and Phil Noble for Reuters]

“I will not say that wilderness is a tonic, balm, or medicine for the troubled soul; that most everyone has a troubled soul in need of moss’s healing touch and birdsong’s rejuvenating cheeriness; that this common soul-ache is just a little human-sized sliver of despair situated within the broader soul of the natural world; that I have walked for weeks among meadows and outcrops and waterfalls, blisters on my toes, a grin spreading from ear to ear and beyond.” [Leath Tonino for Orion]

“We humans are not passively dragged along by temperatures and rainfall patterns. Climate change did not cause the fall of Cahokia any more than it forced northern Europeans to eat their pets and abandon their children. But the adversity brought by climate change caused societies to break apart, magnified pre-existing divisions, and made desperate people easy prey for dangerous people.” [Kate Marvel for Scientific American]

“The waterwheel lives a double life: facing extinction in its native habitat even as it creeps into places where it doesn’t belong.” [Marion Renault for New York Times]


Thanks for reading! As always, Pinch of Dirt is brought to you by Jessica McKenzie. If you like what you read here, please consider recommending this newsletter to your friends, and clicking the heart button below, which gives me “internet points” and helps strangers find this newsletter.

Lap swim city

Advice from two friends on how to share very cramped quarters

I could swim before I could walk, my parents tell me. This was not the result of any innate talent or desire of my own, of course; my parents simply made sure of it. They were regular lap swimmers (amateur triathletes, in fact) when I was born, and would take turns watching me in the warm pool while the other swam laps in the cold pool. This was at the college in my hometown. My dad would trap me in the corner so I had to dive under his arms to escape, an enormously fun challenge that I demanded again and again. Eventually, they bought me neon-colored diving rings and sticks so that it was easier for me to entertain myself.

Swimming lessons were a foregone conclusion. I was very briefly on a community swim team around the age of 10, but I wasn't a very good competitor (a fact that holds true across all sports, I believe) and quickly lost interest—and anyway, soon after that, dance swallowed up all of my free time and energy. Since then, I have continued to enjoy swimming in lakes, ponds, streams, and oceans, but I haven't swam a lap in decades.

Until last week, that is.

Now that I am Outdoorsy, and moreover an Outdoorsy journalist and writer, it only made sense to subscribe to the weekly New York City Parks email blast, which is how I learned about free summer lap swimming at public pools across the city. Although the city's idea of "summer" is painfully abridged (the program doesn't begin until July 5 and only lasts through August), two months of free outdoor lap swimming still sounded like a pretty good deal, so I picked up a new pair of goggles, a swim cap, a combination lock for the lockers, and dug out a still-stretchy Speedo from storage. (The Speedo, I assure you, is not twenty years old, but it is not new and will probably be retired at the end of the season.)

More importantly, I emailed two friends and avid lap swimmers for advice. I sensed that lap swimming in the city would not be like lap swimming in Emporia, Kansas, where I'm not convinced my parents ever had to share a lane, let alone share it with four or five (or more!) other swimmers. Jude and Emma's advice is very slightly condensed and edited here. (Note: This weekend, Jude is swimming across the Hudson River! The swim benefits the operation of the River Pool at Beacon and its Hudson conservation activities. If you're so inclined, you can learn more and donate here.)


Jude: The reason I haven't replied to this yet is because it would become a small essay! So that must mean I have thoughts. I'm going to think about them and try to formulate today.

Emma: I can also formulate some thoughts! They all boil down to STAY IN YOUR LANE (and for the love of god, let fast people go ahead of you.)

Jude: By far the most important thing especially when you are starting out is to recognize lane patterns. This is very simple but very important: If you are in a lane with only one other person, you have the option to "split" (i.e, each person takes a side and goes up and down that side); if there are 3 or more people, you have to circle (i.e., everyone swims in a counterclockwise circle). Check in with fellow swimmers when switching lane patterns. I've experienced a head-on collision with an Italian tourist at the West Side Y who just assumed we were circling, so I am pretty proactive about this. Stay observant (especially if like me you wear glasses and therefore can’t actually see when swimming).

Emma: Always, always notify all swimmers in a lane if you are switching from split to circle swimming. Some (like me!) are blind without glasses.

Jude: Lanes are usually organized by speed so yes be mindful of that when entering. As Emma mentioned there are definitely moments of frustration when you are not in a good pacing situation. But when you’re well paced it’s bliss.

Emma: Passing tends to be done by assholes who are in the wrong lane and don't know how to share space. I've done it too, but it's really not a good idea in a pool under 25 meters. Let faster people lap you at the end of the lane or they will become full of pent-up rage. How do you know if someone is faster than you? If, when you turn, you see that someone is within an arm/body length behind you, they are either faster or at your pace and you should let them pass.

Jude: Remember to stretch. And bring water to drink even though you are surrounded by water. I like to warm up with 3 (back and forth) breaststroke laps and then I do the crawl the rest of the time. On the rare occasion when I am completely alone in a lane I’ll indulge in some backstroke.

Emma: If you have trouble breathing underwater humming always helps.

Jude: Prepare to get very annoyed at strangers for no reason. Unless they are doing butterfly which is a very justifiable reason to be annoyed. Only dumb bros ever do the butterfly in a shared lane.

Emma: Cannot agree more about butterfly and I have honestly never seen a woman doing this. Enjoy! It's going to be great!

Jude: You'll love it.


What I’m reading

Must read: I thought this essay by Megan Mayhew Bergman on camping alone and women’s relationship with the natural world and/or conservation would be an easy link, but of course I have Opinions on this topic that will take more than 10 minutes to sort out. It’s one that I wish I were better versed in; my dad gave me a copy of At Home on This Earth, a collection of two centuries of U.S. women’s nature writing, but I haven’t read as much of it as I would like (probably because I’m terrible about skipping around to what interests me most, and insist on progressing chronologically). But I feel like I’ve read enough to find this essay rather obvious. Well duh! I wanted to scream. Maybe that means this essay wasn’t for me. But on the other hand, what still needs to be said? How can this conversation be advanced? What now, what next? (And, the journalist and writer’s question: What can I add?)

Another bit that jumped out and prompted searching questions about my own experience camping alone was when Bergman wrote, “I want to see if my joy can outweigh my fear.” Even on my thru-hike of the Long Trail, I was rarely really alone, especially at camp. But the two nights that I did camp alone (once intentionally, to be near a pond; once because I was too tired to reach the next shelter) there was a constant push and pull of anxiety and freedom and relaxation and happiness and fear. From this distance (three years) I think joy absolutely outweighed fear. (But is all fear bad? Can fear be part of the joy?) [h/t Susan Augenbraun]

No new ideas: Andrea Pitzer beat me to the I-hate-running-but-run-anyway essay. Although we are very different—all happy runners are alike; each unhappy runner is unhappy in her own way?—Pitzer gets it: “What does it mean to embrace an activity you’re awful at, something you know you’ll never get better at, and love even though you hate it?”

Energy wars: Drew Higgins reports for Outside on a new “green” power line that would impact wildlife and recreation along the Appalachian Trail, and the potential conflicts that arise when states hurry to usher in a new era of reduced carbon emissions.

Good news: For the past 18 years, this botanist has been restoring native wildflowers to roadsides near her home.

Thanks for reading! As always, Pinch of Dirt is brought to you by Jessica McKenzie. If you like what you read here, please consider recommending this newsletter to your friends, and clicking the heart button below, which gives me “internet points” and helps strangers find this newsletter.

Vacation, all I ever wanted

Vacation, had to get away

I am back from a glorious long weekend upstate (and a week off from this newsletter). Although there were three thunderbolt-and-cloud icons in the forecast when we drove up on Wednesday night, the days were nearly all sun, with the exception of a brief downpour late Saturday afternoon. There was running, swimming, hiking, and badminton (yes, badminton, even though I kept saying backgammon in my head and sometimes aloud as I searched for the correct word).

As the self-appointed (and very much unasked-for) hike leader of the group, I sent out a mini hiking guide to the lower/southern Catskills with suggestions for people willing to spend upwards of six hours on the trail and for those interested in hiking for four hours or less, and successfully got all but one out on a trail. The 6+ hour crew climbed Peekamoose and Table Mountains, which don’t have clear summits but do have nice viewing ledges along either side of the trail, and afterwards we took a dip in the Instagram-famous Blue Hole (the enormously popular spot now requires day-use permits on weekends and holidays, but we were lucky enough to visit on a Friday so we were able to jump in after the hike sans-permit). My feet positively burned as we waded in, for reasons I discovered much later.

Which brings me to my latest and greatest badge of honor (squeamish folks might want to scroll past this): A blister under my big toe! Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I went out of my way to get this blister; I did not intentionally neglect to trim my nails in order to increase the never-ending back and forth rubbing beneath the nail that eventually gave rise to the blister. I was just lazy and unthinking and lack of proper foot care is always getting me into messes like these. However, ever since hiker and writer Nicole Antoinette got blisters under her toenails while hiking the PCT and *drilled holes in them to release the pressure* I have gotten it into my head that this is a very badass thing to have happen, so I’m not that sorry it did.

I was a little surprised, however, because I found the blister by accidentally popping it while cleaning my nails back in Brooklyn. Whoops!

My Tilley hat does not see enough action, something I tried to remedy this past weekend.

What I’m reading

New York City declared a climate emergency, and as far as I can tell it means exactly nothing. It comes with no policy, no money, no commitments. Can someone please tell me what it is in fact good for?

“Ice age zombies” (No, it’s a good thing): Daniel Ackerman reports for The Washington Post that a retreating glacier has left behind tufts of ancient moss that burst with new growth when taken somewhere warm and bright.

Looks like this will be a short week because I thought I sent myself lots of links but I just…hadn’t! Friendly reminder that you, too, can always send me links or tips about things that you think should make it into this newsletter (and let me know if you want me to tag your Twitter or Insta).

To make up for it, a little garden update (click thru for the sunflowers):

Fuzzy baby watermelon!

You’re reading Pinch of Dirt, a weekly newsletter by Jessica McKenzie. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram. If you like what you read here, please consider recommending this newsletter to your friends, or simply click the <3 button below.

Mangoes on the beach

The sky was blue, the sand was hot, the water was cool

Yesterday I treated myself to a glorious beach day with some of the other freelance members of Study Hall. The sky was blue, the sand was hot, the water was cool. One of the other freelancers brought a box of mangoes from Jackson Heights to share. We cut them up with his pocket knife (actually, the same pocket knife I own) and ate them leaning over the sand so the juice wouldn’t run onto our blankets and towels. The flesh was soft but not too soft, bright and sweet, one of the best mangoes I’ve ever had.

I neglected to document the mid-week beach trip so please accept this photo from a beach day in 2017.

What I’m reading

Must read: Outside Magazine published a moving first-person story by a woman (writing under a pseudonym) who has had two pregnancies, and two miscarriages. She is also a ski instructor, a hiker, a climber. “When I drafted an e-mail to some close friends to tell them about our second loss,” she writes, “my husband requested that I make it clear that while I miscarried rock climbing, I didn’t miscarry because I was rock climbing.”

I don’t think her story could have come at a more important time. The day after her story was published, AL.com reported that a black woman has been indicted for manslaughter in the death of her own unborn child, because she started a fight with a woman who then shot her in the stomach. Marshae Jones, the woman who just lost her pregnancy, was not armed. She did not shoot herself in the stomach. And yet she faces 20 years in prison for manslaughter, because she miscarried. (The shooter, incidentally, was not indicted.)

As soon as I read that, I began wondering where the line is. Whether a woman who rides a bike and gets in an accident and miscarries is guilty of manslaughter. Or a woman who drives and gets in an accident and miscarries is guilty (she said wryly, because our car culture would never allow that). Or a woman who goes on a long hike, or goes rock climbing, or goes backcountry skiing. And I think the Outside story reveals that fear is already there — not necessarily of prosecution for manslaughter, because that depends on the state laws where you live, and also the color of your skin and myriad other privileges or lack thereof — but of being blamed for being a bad mother-to-be.

It’s the money, honey: Julie Turkewitz wrote a fascinating story for the New York Times about the billionaires buying up large swaths of land in the West, and are now cutting off or restricting access to public land.

#Adventurecats: Wudan Yan wrote a fun one for the Times about the cat on the leash (or cat in the backpack) phenomenon. Reader, what do you think: Should we get Jaeger a leash?

Does the window cat want to be a goes-on-walks cat?

You’re reading Pinch of Dirt, a weekly newsletter by Jessica McKenzie. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram. If you like what you read here, please consider recommending this newsletter to your friends, or simply click the <3 button below.

Signs of life

Tomato, tomato

One of the best parts of working from home all day, every day this summer has been taking breaks to take care of my garden. When I was working in an office, or going to 10am class every day, watering my plants was something I rushed through before leaving the house for the day. Sometimes I’d already be dressed before realizing I should probably give the parched plants some water. I’d crawl out the window and get sweaty and dirty, sloshing water down my legs as I hurried through the chore.

Now it’s what I do in between tasks, or when I need a break from my screen, or from work in general. I can take a bit more time: today I went ahead and gave the indoor plants a shower, because they were looking a little dusty. It’s been raining a lot the past few days, so the outside plants didn’t need water, but I crawled outside anyway to remove the yellowing stems on the tomato plants. (Only two of the tomato plants seem to be yellowing, and I’m wondering if those got less compost than the others, and there’s not enough nitrogen? I have not diagnosed the cause, but I had the same problem last year with the same variety—yellow pear cherry.)

Look at these beauties! Bumble bee cherry tomatoes from the Hudson Valley Seed company.
Beam’s yellow pear tomato (you can see some of the yellowing leaves in the background!)
Amish paste tomato in flower. I haven’t had success with Amish paste in the past, I think because it’s a full-size tomato and not a cherry tomato, but I’m trying again just for fun.
Baby Aurora pepper cuties! NONE of the new pepper varieties I purchased last year germinated this spring but these Aurora peppers haven’t failed me yet. Foolproof.
Catnip (right), and a sprawling lavender plant that won’t stay in its pot
These are volunteers! I think they came from bird seed that fell down from the feeder into the crack between the wall and the wine crate full of soil. Anyone know what they are? I want them to be sunflowers!

What I’m reading

  • I love this idea: Other cities keep parks open late into the night. Why can’t we do that in the United States? Linda Poon reports for CityLab.

  • Unintended consequences: How filling the demand for more earth-friendly electric cars is killing the Atacama desert in Chile. Laura Millan Lombrana reports for Bloomberg.

  • BRRRR: A team of scientists is preparing to spend a year trapped in a ship frozen in Artic waters to study the effects of climate change, Sarah Kaplan reports for The Washington Post. Perhaps this would sound more fun if I wasn’t watching The Terror right now.

  • Gone but not forgotten: How can locating “ghost creeks” help San Francisco prepare to face climate chaos? Erica Gies reports for Scientific American.

  • EW EW EW: The Sourtoe Cocktail is even more disgusting than it sounds. For The Washington Post, Meagan Flynn explains where a Yukon bar got its latest digit.


    You’re reading Pinch of Dirt, a weekly newsletter by Jessica McKenzie. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram. If you like what you read here, please consider recommending this newsletter to your friends, or simply click the <3 button below.

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